New Jersey Is Linking Criminal Justice Reform With Marijuana Legalization

A secondary proposal seeks to expunge the criminal records of marijuana related crimes

Photo by Nastasic/Getty Images

It is not good enough that New Jersey is in the process of becoming one of the next states to legalize marijuana for recreational use, the issue is now focused on the hundreds of thousands of people who have been convicted of pot-related crimes. A secondary proposal has made its way to the legislative table seeking to expunge the criminal records of those who got caught up in the gears of prohibition over the past several decades. It seems that erasing the checkered pasts of pot offenders is has become the latest cannabis advocacy trends. Some say it should have been this way all along.

The argument for the expungement deal hinges on the idea that marijuana prohibition is rooted in racism and that minorities have been a hard target when it comes to getting into trouble with the law. According to the ACLU, black Americans are three times as likely to be arrested for marijuana crimes than whites. This is in spite of data showing that all races are using marijuana at around the same rate. So, New Jersey is looking to make good on all of the times it kicked the crap out of citizens, put them in jail and maybe even imprisoned them over pot. Call it reparations, call it the right thing to do, but many community members are calling it necessary before moving forward.

“If expungement wasn’t a part of this, legalization wouldn’t happen. They wouldn’t have the votes for it,” Assemblyman Jamel C. Holley, the chairman of the New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus Foundation, told the New York Times.

“We represent minority communities and communities who have been impacted the most. This is very important to us. There would be no way that I would support legalization of marijuana without expungement,” he added.

But not every pot offender would be looked after under the companion measure. The bill would set it up to where people convicted of small-time marijuana offenses could get their records expunged. The bill would automatically wipe the slate clean for some, but it wouldn’t have any bearing on those people brought down by the system for dealing or engaging in any kind of drug trafficking schemes.

But there is some discussion about stepping up the reach of the proposal. Some lawmakers are pushing for a plan to would absolve even serious drug convictions. The idea is that by forgiving and forgetting that these people have been flogged by the criminal justice system for selling drugs (even hard stuff like cocaine and heroin), that they might have an opportunity to get off the streets and make a life for themselves. This olive branch would be made available only to those who stayed out of trouble for at least 10 years after their conviction. It would be the second chance that many need and deserve.

Several legal marijuana states have eventually come back around to address the concept of expunging the records of pot offenders. However, New Jersey could be the first to include this reform with its marijuana legalization bill. This is the way it should go from here on out, says Dianna Houenou, the policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. “Trying to make sure that expungement is done statewide really ensures that they are at the forefront of this effort,” she said. “Doing this at the outset of legalization, instead of as an afterthought, makes New Jersey a leader.”

Still, it remains to be seen whether the State Legislature can get any of it done. Although Governor Phil Murphy is behind it all the way, there is still enough resistance in the Senate to prevent the bill from going the distance.

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